Shot in the Eye, Exploring Blinding by Police - PhMuseum

Shot in the Eye, Exploring Blinding by Police

Wil Sands

2020 - Ongoing

I remember hearing the shot and turning my head just in time to watch the aluminum tear gas canister slam into my brow and forehead. Like ripples in a puddle the impact rolled through my eye, instantaneously detaching my retina. It was the eye I used to create, to document, to share—a photographer’s eye—but now all I could see through it were dancing shards of light on a background of emptiness. I was near Lafayette Square in Washington, DC, photographing the protests in May that had erupted in the aftermath of the killing of George Floyd. But my mind immediately went to Chile, to the work I had done there a year before, to the dozens of eyes I saw destroyed during protests in that country. In that moment I knew exactly what my injury could mean.

Since Floyd’s death at least 23 people have been blinded or partially blinded by “less lethal” munitions used by the police to disperse protesters. That number continues to grow. While calls for bans on these weapons have led to limited prohibitions of their use, most police departments continue to see “less lethal” weapons as legitimate tools for crowd control.

As part of my own recovery I’ve been meeting, interviewing, and photographing the dozens of others—many of them fellow photographers—who’ve unwillingly joined what we’ve taken to calling the Shot in the Eye Club. I’ve been trying to use photography to explore what “less lethal” really means and to re-create the way our vision has changed—both figuratively and literally.

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  • Nikita Tarver. Seattle, WA.
    “The saddest part of it all was what my friend said afterwards. She said that just before I was shot she looked back and saw me, the only black face in a sea of white protesters. They shot me cause I’m black. That’s messed up.” Nikita Tarver remembers the night she was shot, the protests felt like a community celebration. People were together, in their outrage they were happy. Then it was all violently interrupted by the Seattle police. Nikita was shot with a “less lethal” round. Both her cornea and retina suffered extensive damage. Today she is facing multiple surgeries with no guarantee of recovering her vision.

  • Matthew Leo Cima. Washington, DC.
    “I remember hearing the crack of my skull, then feeling ice cold, smelling blood, and then a bright light like the negative of a Rorschach.” Cima was shot in the left eye with a “less lethal” round while protesting outside the White House in Lafayette Square. After multiple surgeries Matthew is still unable to see clearly through his damaged eye. “Doc said after my last two surgeries that I (we) wont know how successful or not it will be for a few more months. But things don't look different. I remain neither optimistic nor pessimistic about the likelihood of success.”

  • Linda Tirado. Nashville, TN.
    “I was lining up a shot when my head exploded.” Linda Tirado, a journalist, was covering the protests in Min- neapolis, MN, when she was shot in the face with a “less lethal” round fired by the police. A tear in her left cor- nea has effectively blinded that eye and now an unrelated virus is threatening the sight in her good eye. “We don’t talk about how often police escalate situations during protests.”

  • Vincent Doyle. Atlanta, GA.
    “Either I run or I hide under the car or I just stay here and hope they don’t do anything. I remembered whenever my dad had an encounter with the police he’d take out his phone. So that’s what I did. I didn’t even know I was recording.” Vincent Doyle, a budding photographer, was shot in the face while photographing the protests in Dallas. “The police interrogated me in the hospital three times in four days. No lawyer present, and on morphine.” Vincent suffered a fractured orbital, torn retina, severe bleeding in the back of the eye, scarring to the retina, and several broken teeth. He is trying to adapt to his new reality. “It still doesn’t feel real.”

  • You ever feel broken? Fucking card readers at a checkout stir up memories everyday. Depth perception isn’t right. Simple little things you used to do without thinking, now are clumsy reminders of how you’ve changed. What you’ve lost. No one else can tell I was shot in the face, but I know. I’m not the same as before. Short tempers and burning resentment. People say thank god it wasn’t worse. Thank god it didn’t hit your temple, or blind both eyes. You were lucky. Yeah, yeah… but i still can’t see. It can always be worse. But this sucks. This is real and it’s not going to go away. It may normalize and you may adapt. But then one day you’ll go into a fucking gas station and fumble around with your debit card like a drunk and again that unfortunately ‘lucky’ event will shatter any new normalcy you’ve found.

  • Soren Stevenson. Minneapolis, MN.
    “My face was soft where there should have been bone.” Stevenson lost his left eye to a “less lethal” round while protesting police brutality and the death of George Floyd. He sees the redlining and segregation of Minneapolis as another form of racist violence. He has gone back to work and is looking forward, but he hasn’t lost his fight. Before the recent election he and other members of Families Supporting Families, a grassroots organization that supports families who’ve lost loved ones to police brutality, met with the Governor’s office and the Speaker of the Minnesota House to advocate for the victims of police brutality, “we are demanding the cases of their loved ones’ deaths be reopened, the abolishment of qualified immunity, a fund for victims of police violence, and an extension of the statue of limitations for cases against police.”

  • Sean Stearns. Kansas City, MO.
    “I don’t want to be quiet and stay at home and pretend it’s not happening.” Sean Stearns lost vision in his right eye to a “less lethal” round while protesting in Kansas City, MO. He has yet to decide whether or not he wants the eye removed.

  • “How has your vision changed since being shot?” I see differently. It’s layers of light opening up new sight. A constant multi exposure collage. No doubt I’ve lost an old vision of the world around me, but strangely I feel like there’s a new opening im just beginning to discover. A close friend reminds me of Monet’s gradual loss of sight, his paintings slowly getting more brown, colors losing their contrast melting into one color of many shades.

  • Balin Brake. Fort Wayne, IN.
    Balin was shot in the right eye with a “less lethal” round while protesting in Fort Wayne. His eye exploded with the impact. Today a white prosthetic reminds anyone he meets of his injury. Balin doesn’t regret that evening of protest, even in the face of the tragic cost he’s paid. In the months since his injury Balin has been repeatedly trolled on social media. He’s been accused of being a trauma actor, his injury an invention of the deep state. “I don’t regret anything because I didn’t do anything wrong. I was standing up for a cause that I believe in. And I fell victim to that. So I don’t have any regrets. It sucks what happened, I don’t know. I try not to think about it negatively.”

  • Mykaela Dyett. Atlanta, GA.
    “I was shot and I realized I’d be- come the story I was trying to cov- er.” Mykaela Dyett, 21, was study- ing filmmaking when she joined the protests in Atlanta. Mykaela was shot in the left eye with a “less lethal” round. She’s had one surgery so far and is looking at more in the future.

  • My sight. Two eyes and two distinctly different visions of the world. One simple, clear, and clean; one confused, muddled, and complex. The brain is tired by the mixed signals. For more than two weeks I was stuck on my side looking out at an often empty living room.

  • Frank Hunt. Richmond, VA. Frank was shot in the eye with a foam round fired by officers from the Richmond Police Department. For months Frank didn’t seek treatment for his eye because he was uninsured, and worried about reprisals from the police. “I’m dedicated to being out there.” Frank considers himself a “frontliner” and has been active in RIchmond’s weekly protests since George Floyd’s death. The day before the election right-wing activists organized a Trump Train motorcade through Richmond. Frank showed up to protest. “I almost caught a hot one in the face. He fucking missed me by just a couple of inches. I heard that shit go by!” After confronting the driver and passengers of a white truck in the Trump Train, one of the passengers fired a round at Frank’s head. Frank laughs, “finding selfless service is difficult.” Frank is still waiting for a formal diagnosis, at the moment he can only see some silhouettes through the damaged eye.

  • Self Portrait. Saranac Lake, NY.
    They look deep into the back of your eye. They check your eye pressure, and make sure everything is normal. They can’t tell you what kind of sight you’ll get back. They can’t reassure you that it will be like it was before. The only thing they can say is you’re recovering really well. Eye injuries are a strange thing, it’s never clear what you’re recovering to.

  • “She wants me to be present, she needs me to be present. She deserves a loving partner, someone to share her pain... all I want to do is turn in. Turn inward deep into my trauma, my pain. There’s no room there for her.”

  • John Sanders. Akron, OH.
    A bean bag round left Sanders’ eye hanging out of his head. “It’s ironic as hell that I was protesting something and that same thing happens to me.” His words ring true for many injured in the last months’ protest, protesting police brutality and white supremacy and then falling victim to those same structures. Sanders was shot in the eye with a “less lethal” bean bag round by Cleveland PD during protests in response to George Floyd’s death. He lost his left eye, and suffered multiple fractures in his face. Today John is in recovery, trying to find a new normal. “This is exactly why we’re out there. Without anybody saying anything, then its just going to continue.” John Sanders lost his eye, but his fight is not gone.


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